Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Countering prejudice: Activism and agency in the museum

Here's my notes from the talk by Dr Richard Sandell, Head of Museum Studies, Leicester University:

  • Looking at social effects of museums and how audiences engaged with particular public programs
  • Project: rethinking disability representation opened nine different interpretive projects across nine cultural institutions – wanted to challenge visitors' preconceptions about disability, gave examples of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery where had four different points of view about works in collections that represented disability on some way; Imperial War Museum programs with secondary school students about disability representation and war
  • Context of project came from few trends:
    • growth in numbers of specialist museums, such as Lower East Side Tenement Museum who are using historic collections to frame debates around contemporary issues
    • widespread interest in diversity, cross-cultural understanding and inclusion, but growing claims that museums have role and are playing roles in these debates – are they really? Little evaluation of what they are doing and how they're doing it
    • what does the 'active audience' mean? We know that people come to museums with their own ideas, needs and interests
    • much of the work looking at examining prejudice is cognitively based – you are either prejudiced or not, compared to a discourse approach which acknowledges that prejudice is part of everyday life
  • Researched social agency of museums via Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art as case studies
  • Research methods – focussed on visitors, open-ended interviews, talking openly about what they liked and disliked and how they responded to exhibits, as well as investigating written comments in visitors' books and comments cards that became part of the exhibition themselves
  • Findings: drew on sociological studies of media about how people read different media forms. Used framework of confirmatory readings, oppositional reading and negotiated readings
  • Bulk of readings were confirmatory; negotiated reading focus on those groups (for example) that should be taken out; oppositional readings – identify message and say they disagree either directly or indirectly. Found that sometimes these were fluid within their responses
  • Other responses fell into categories of dynamic (moving their position as a result of what they'd seen in museum) and dialogic responses
  • Also found people felt museums were a trusted resource – drew on museum to help make sense of issues in their daily lives, see museums as "unconstructed" and not biased compared to other media. Visitors were more open to what they found in museums – didn't "read" it with the same filters that they do when "reading" other media (we found this in our work too – see this paper for some data)
  • "Museums frame, inform and enable the conversations which society has about difference"
  • Tensions, dilemmas, challenges:
    • Taking sides? St Mungos very transparent about their aim, but does that counteract the idea that museums are seen as impartial and not taking sides? Tension between helping people make meanings and being clear about the museum's moral position
    • Recasting cultural authority? Not telling people what to think, but to invite debate and their comments become part of the exhibit, tension between authority and inviting different views
    • Engaging with contentious and unresolved issues? What kinds of interpretive devices can we use with issues that are less clear-cut? Gave example of Insights online program at the Holocaust Museum that enables people to chat about issues
    • Moral leadership? His future research is looking at how far should museums go in leading debates about issues where there isn't consensus or an agreed moral stand within the museum
    • Museums and social responsibility – what responsibly do museums have in leading and heading us towards a just society??

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Digital World and Museums

This from Zahava Doering, Smithsonian: Hi! On a short fuse, I've been asked to identify museums that are using technology in INNOVATIVE ways to enhance, inform, and guide the visits of their visitors. I'm lost as to where to begin... I know that the Exploratorium is using RFIS technology, but... COULD YOU suggest places/people to call? THANKS, Zahava.

Zahava, it's hard to know where to start with this query but I'll try. I've looked at two things – those museums that I know of using technologies in their physical experiences, and those who are doing interesting things online that often intersect with the physical.

Regarding physical experiences, the Tech Museum of innovation uses technology called tech tags where (I think) visitors can tag exhibits and make their own website from that. The Churchill Museum has an extraordinary exhibit called Lifeline "... a fifteen metre-long interactive table, which dominates the Churchill Museum space. By using a simple touch-strip, visitors can access information from a computerised 'filing cabinet' of Churchill's life, divided into years, months, weeks and even days. The Lifeline
also refers to major national and world events in order to give a sense of the times in which Churchill lived"
. Launchball at the Science Museum got 1.3 million online visits before the physical gallery even opened and is a great example of converging physical and online visit experiences. The North East Regional Museums Hub in the UK have a nice set of resources and tours, called i like museums... that visitors can download before they visit and also contribute their own tours. Now that the International Spy Museum and Newseum have opened I would imagine they would have many interactives using technologies that you could ask them about. I was really impressed with the Newseum when I visited them several years ago and I'm sure the revamped one is even better. I'm sure there are also many other examples that I have missed.

When it comes to online experiences a good place to start is the Museums and the Web Best of the Web awards which list finalists and winners including the people's choice award voted by us. Another first resource is a blog post I did explaining Museums and Web 2.0 that gives examples of museums doing things in the digital world. So, as to others:

User tagging – steve.musuem project and Powerhouse Museum OPAC 2.0 project, with some blog posts documenting their experiences here.

Use of YouTube – a range of museums reported on their YouTube experiences at the recent Museums and the Web conference and the paper – Beyond Launch: Museum Videos on YouTube – is well worth a read.

Use of Flickr – the Powerhouse Museum recently joined the commons on Flickr with images from their collection. Picture Australia has involved a range of cultural institutions to contribute to an online images archive. There are many, many other museums using Flickr in interesting ways.

Facebook – I was impressed with the Canada Science and Technology Corporation who have been experimenting with Facebook for membership and feedback as reported at Museums and Web 2008. This is a conjunction between the physical and online worlds and I think has potential to grow even further. The ArtShare application on Facebook is another example of joining the physical and online (you may need to be a member of Facebook to use this link).

Blogs – the Town Hall Gallery blog from Melbourne is an easy way to keep people updated about its activities. The Walker Art Centre has a variety of blogs for a range of audiences. Again, there are now heaps of museums blogging – one that struck me was the Exploratorium Explainers who blog about their experiences and answer questions as well.

Educational programs online – the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum has an innovative way of involving teachers to provide online educational materials via their Educator Resource Centre.

Finally, anything that the Brooklyn Museum is doing is worth looking at.

Zahava, might also be a good idea to subscribe to a couple of blogs that are reporting on the digital world and museums. Two I've found useful are fresh + new(er) from Seb Chan at the Powerhouse Museum and Museum 2.0 from Nina Simon. You can also join us on the Museum 3.0 ning group where plenty of others are available to add their insights and wisdom to a wide range of topics and queries from members.

Best of luck with whatever it is you are doing!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

What do visitors want to know about objects??

Spent a few interesting days with the folks from the Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA. We spoke about the kinds of questions visitors have about objects. Across a few studies now I have found rather consistent questions that keep arising for natural history and anthropological objects.

From natural history specimens people want to know:

  • What is it?
    • scientific name
    • everyday name/description
  • Where did it come from:
    • and when was it found
    • distribution
  • The 'museum' things:
    • how is it preserved
    • why is it in a museum? what is it used for?
    • is it real?
  • What is it related to that's familiar to me?

From anthropology objects they want to know:

  • What is it made of?
  • How is it used?
  • What is it used for?
  • How often is it used?
  • What is the symbolism of it?
  • How old is it?
  • Is it still used today? If not, what is?
  • Who were/are the people and what are their stories?

Madge showed me a document she had worked on for an art museum that had also looked at this issue. The Harvard MUSE project (Museums United with Schools in Education) suggested a framework for classifying (and therefore writing labels about) artworks which I think translate across a wide range of museums:

  • Logical – how was the object made?
  • Aesthetic – how does it work together with other objects?
  • Narrative – what are the stories surrounding the object: social, historical and personal (I would also add perhaps scientifically for natural history objects)?
  • Foundational – what are the big philosophical questions that place the object within a context?
  • Experiential – what can be created in response to looking at the object (I would also add what new information, connections and meanings can be made in response to the object)?

While all the above are useful as ways of thinking about placing objects in physical exhibitions, they also have relevance I believe to how a museum might "display" their object online via their websites or through Flickr – perhaps a set of guiding principles??

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Designing for Teens: MW2008 Day 3

Went to this really fascinating session this afternoon (after shopping!!). The points that were raised were how important it is to work closely with teens when designing websites for them. Also teens really wanted to use a range of media (although not podcasts of artists' talking!) and have two-way conversation, with the instituting and each other.

The first paper about a project called ArtPad at the Glenbow consulted teens by showing them works of contemporary art and finding out what questions they had. They found that the front-end evaluation really challenged their assumptions and informed the process.

Anne Neilson from the Statens Museum for Kunst worked with 90 teens over 400 days! They now have 500 profiles on-line and they also use these as a laboratory – a way to see what their audience

Advantages of their site:

  • It's not commercial
  • It's in Danish – important for them to express themselves in Danish
  • It's democratic
  • It's a small and safe community – and exists on-site too
  • It's not just flashy show off – it's serious, you can really discuss and engage with each other
  • There's room for different kinds of users and user behaviour
  • The context of the Museum – gives some authority and identity


  • Education – teachers aren't that keen to use it
  • Continuum from museum to community
  • Community member grow "too old"
  • Resources –time and funding
  • The internet ecosystem – at moment doesn't link well into other sites and how should this be done? The audience wants to keep it for themselves – it's a safe place for their inner art nerd

Walker Art Centre project have a WalkerArtCentreTeenArtsCouncil (WACTAC). They started with using this group as way to talk to teens about what they're doing online:

  • Messaging each other privately and publicly
  • Links to other cool thing they've seen
  • Shows/events
  • Videos, YouTube
  • Showing their work (art, videos, etc) and posting to their pages
  • Customising their profiles to show their identity and be different from others

What is the Walker doing that works?

  • Have a good set of blogs that people are actively using – institutional acceptance of blogs and how to use and maintain them

What else do they need?

  • Institutional program info
  • Maybe enticing teens into doing reviews and criticism?
  • Public face of WACTAC?
  • Should be an open-vessel – ready for expansion
  • Teens want to be more playful and fun, fresh set of views

The new site for teens is divided into business side and teens side of things – looked a bit too busy for me but I'm definitely not the audience and they obviously like it! The backgrounds can be customised by the user and they demonstrated a slideshow of designs – this enables people to design their own look and take ownership of it. It's also clever how they have used outside services like delicious and upcoming (an events calendar feed).

What did they learn:

  • Make teens part of the process, not just part of the product
  • With great power comes great responsibility! But by giving them ownership they take responsibility
  • Thinks about the site as an educational program – don't focus on marketing

Overall I think the session should have been called designing with teens, not for teens as that's what really came out. Here's a link to the educational websites study we did some time ago that found pretty much the same thing.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Beyond launch: Museum videos and YouTube

A range of museums talk about their YouTube experiences and lessons.

Hirshorn and YouTube:

  • No money, no people, no tome therefore needed to be very resourceful
  • Lesson learned – time to get creative! Use interns, start out small, show there is some demand then resources will follow
  • Contract restriction as – part of the Federal Government and had some existing contracts but are working around this

Exploratorium and YouTube:

  • Took some footage of an exhibit on the floor which is one of the most popular
  • Teasers and trailers for events coming up – not their primary focus
  • Involved their Explainers– training them, giving them cameras and mikes and sending them out on the floor. This has worked very well and well-polished videos were the resut
  • Learned need to have person to keep an eye on the channel and the social networking – one of many things they do

San Jose Museum of Art and YouTube:

  • Viral marketing – used bloggers that picked up the video and started a life of its own
  • Embed videos wherever you can – throughout your site, not just one area

Indianapolis Museum of Art and YouTube:

  • Started two years ago with marketing video/trailer, always have one that accompanies an exhibition
  • Instructional videos have been the most used- they are a series and target a relatively small but very specific audience
  • Not searching for art museum or the IMA – they are searching differently (e.g. calligraphy, origami)
  • Finding blogs and linking to them helps, finding other videos on YouTube that deal with similar content
  • Instructional videos are very easy (and cheap!) to produce

MoMA and YouTube:

  • Register your name as it may already be taken!
  • Started with an intern and borrowed camera – you don't need a lot to start with
  • Comments allow visitors to share experience and expertise in an open environment – although they may not be what you want to hear!
  • Started with an open policy and allowed everything there (except spam)
  • Enabling expression and dialogue
  • It's so easy – but is it?? The technology is getting better
  • makeinternettv.org is a helpful site when making videos
  • Numbers of views is not the only metric to use- need to get quality numbers, understand that people don't read online and YouTube in particular
  • Put links on top of video description rather than below
  • Also have a good comment policy

Why metrics suck – Seb Chan, MW2008 Day 2

Attended Seb's talk today about metrics. Points and my interpretations:

  • Start with asking why do we have a website?
  • We want to engage audiences – but how
  • Need to build metrics for each reason
  • Metrics don't calculate return on investment (ROI)
  • People don't come in through the front page, come via Google which has changed the way that people can search (see example of search for Powerhouse Museum) – there is a basic search problem here
  • Lot of metrics that measure time spent often used to buy ads on commercial sites
  • Need to track email users – what links do they click on, what are the read rates, asked how are museums segmenting their audiences? (only 2 did!)
  • When developing email campaigns need to think about how you're going to track subscribers – should be segmenting them too
  • Reinvigorate – a view of the site in real time
  • AttentionMeter – compares different counting systems (I think? Got lost at this point...)
  • Compete is another comparison site
  • Hitwise actually gives more data than I was looking at each month
  • Flickr commons measures – how many people favourite them and how many tags, how many "sensible" comments
  • egosurf – fun site to see how popular you are!!
  • Citation analyser – Domain Tools

Also refer to the post I did on measuring "online" success. I'm still unconvinced as I think we need to do more talking to people – when we evaluated educational websites, museum sites that we thought were good the students often hated! Seb did state that while we need to do qualitative research we need to segment the audiences first – I'm still not sure about this...

Friday, April 11, 2008

Museums and Web Day 2: Breakfast Roundtable Research Group

Sitting with Jen and various others at a roundtable discussing our research projects and issues arising.

  • How do you share results? Conferences, publishing, workshops
  • How to avoid research being done to you and not with you? Often the learning along the way of the project rather than the end product is the benefit. Need to keep the conversations going
  • Doing research makes you ask questions about the nature of the institution, people no longer so respectful of boundaries of the institution in a Web 2.0 world – how does the museum find its niche?.
  • At Australian Museum we thought very carefully about who to get involved – involve both staff we want to influences and those who are influential across the museum
  • Research engages with the messiness – recognise and celebrate that
  • Find an influential person within the institution to champion project – they need to be located at the highest levels
  • Research needs to be part of the institutional culture –social research methodologies is not always understood within the organisation
  • How to manage/keep going when people on the project move on? Need a central person that works across institutions for large [projects, build sustainability within the organisation for smaller projects
  • People doing research into new media/social media should also actively use the tools to communicate – but what happens when there are contentious issues that arise? This can be tricky – comes down to the nature of the relationship and putting out there lessons learned and what we'd do differently again next time
  • Ethics of research especially with on the fly research – how do you get informed consent when you are taking advantage of a situation and documenting it – can use a simple form, at Australian Museum we work with the Coalition of Knowledge Building Schools and ethics is taken care of that way. In our work with very young children we got them to give consent (as well as their parents) through using a simple form with smiley faces that they could colour in to show if they agreed.

User-generated content session: MW2008 Day 1

Several sessions that looked at case studies at a range of museums. One thing that struck we was the ways that visitors' voices are being incorporated into the physical museum using on-line tools. The Denver Art Museum has a live feed into their foyer with Flickr fotos that visitors have updated. The Art of Storytelling project at the Delaware Art Museum engaged visitors with the art by enabling them to tell their own stories about the works of art and making new works from existing ones. The evaluation showed that those who had participated reported feeling more connected to art in general.

The Living Museum project is an interesting experiment and the lessons learned from their earlier work was quite instructive. They have decided to have a set of guidelines for exhibitions that can be put straight online, such as spelling and grammar, relevance to the actual content (Jewish heritage), clear fotos, complete labels, etc. Challenges: resources, small number of current users, average exhibition is 21 artefacts and they post them up within a week so that people remain engaged. How to help users contribute quality content – constantly convey expectations, email and phone support, consider different user needs, continually review and make recommendations about how users can improve their exhibitions in future.

In Your Face, The People's Portrait Project: invited people to submit portraits with three provisos - original portraits, copyright waiver they sign off, 6x4 inches. With no advertising in 12 months they had over 17,000 submissions! Gave them a very good idea of the audience who is interested in and cares about the AGO. Created a Flickr group also, but still figuring that out regarding copyright, although group has continued. Lessons learned and questions asked:

  • How do you balance museum's agenda with visitor expectations?
  • Is it possible to assert control and foster programming that is open-ended? Tension between running open-ended programming and standards, expertise and quality
  • How do we think about expertise quality and standards?
  • How do we integrate and manage creativity in ways that are dynamic and long-term?

Lessons learned:

  • Take risks, experiment and be willing to make mistakes
  • Museums as catalysts for creativity
  • The critical mass of creativity asserts its own kind of aesthetic
  • Value in generating user-generated content that is actual as well as virtual
  • Ultimately it is about people
  • Public invested if programming is authentic and they feel respected
  • Buildings and collections only part of the story

Question arose about motivation: why would people want to engage with a museum through user-generated content? People find something that's relevant to them; people become part of a whole and being engaged with each other as well as the museum. For teachers it was that something was missing from their curriculum that the museum could help with.

A really interesting session. Another thing that keeps coming up is the work that museums are doing with Flickr – seems this is a tool that many have found useful (and my post on Flickr and audience research also generated quite a bit of discussion), obviously there's something there. The Powerhouse Museum announced its participation in the Commons on Flickr website, which is something we could be pursuing further I think.

Museums and the Web Conference Day 1

The opening plenary, Hands On the Internet, was presented by Michael Geist, from the University of Ottawa.

Internet 2008: what does it look like?

  • Blogger has now overtaken CNN website, subject matter experts bringing their voice to their subject area
  • Rise of Facebook and other social networking sites, talked about a Facebook group they set up Fair Copyright for Canada, which now has over 40,000 members
  • Podcasting
  • Postsecret – place for people to connect and talk anonymously about their secrets. Has become a supportive network
  • Elephant's Dream – worlds first open movie
  • New ways to distribute TV in shorter segments and across new platforms and websites - nature of broadcasting has fundamentally changed
  • Tetesaclaquestv channel
  • Creative commons licences
  • Wikitravel – a comprehensive online travel guide community and collaboratively developed, is written in real time, able to personalise
  • GlobalVoices – give voice to people wouldn't usually hear form, often at great risk, learn what's happening on the ground in those countries
  • Using mapping technology to map events to share with the world, gave example of Usahidi that maps examples of violence in Kenya
  • LibriVox sire to convert books into mp3 files
  • Public Library of Science – peer reviewed open access peer-reviewed science journal. Met with much scepticism but now can't keep up with demand

Overall theme is the way web has encouraged collaboration, sharing and community, using open-source approaches to share information, and enabling the community to participate and take action.

Internet 2018: what should we be actively engaged in?

  • Broadband for all
  • Net neutrality
  • Intermediary liability – third party content that may be hosted by you, need to be protected
  • Privacy – need to make sure protections are robust
  • Fair dealing/fair use – need for copyright balance, under and over protecting
  • Digital rights management (DRM)
  • Public domain – how long to extend rights protection?

Future of the internet is ion our hands.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Measuring “success” in the on-line environment

Been thinking quote a bit about this topic as we go into rebuilding the Museum's website. When doing my doctorate came across a quote that nicely encapsulates the focus we should be having: not asking how many people visit, but how valuable are their visits (reference to follow – can't lay my hands on t at the moment).

In our Museums and the Web paper Angelina and I look at different ways on-line users have been classified, and report on studies at the Australian Museum that have attempted to unpack these findings further. Seb Chan's paper, Towards New Metrics of Success For On-Line Museum Projects, argues for a more holistic way to look at on-line visitation, using new tools and broadening the segmentations first proposed by Peacock and Bronwbill.

My Museum colleague, Russ Weakley, set out some ideas about ways to measure visitor engagement with our new website which seem to be quite useful on a broader scale. Here's some text from an email he sent about this issue:

We need to look at methods that measure quality rather than quantity. We may have 2 million visits a year (for now), but how many were satisfied? How many got what they wanted. How many engaged? ... More importantly, we will soon be focussing much more on HOW people are using the site and if we have made any financial gains, not how many people visit. This means looking at things like:

- how many comments?
- how many tags?
- how many discussions between users?
- how many questions have users answered for themselves?
- how many images have users uploaded?
- how many members do we have?
- how active are these members (do they join and never return)?
- how many people are being converted from free to paid membership!!!
- how many products have been sold?
- how many event pages have been visited due to site-wide advertising?
- how many real donations have been made via the website and why?

Russ also pointed out that we need to go beyond comparing ourselves to other museums and galleries to looking at how we compare to sites like Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, etc. More importantly, is how we compare to other sites that are producing similar nature focussed content (for our Museum) within the commercial and private sector.

So, much food for thought and I'll be keeping my eye on this one.

Exhibition Evaluation Surveys

This from Marian Steinberrg, Director, Visitors Research, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG): Lynda, The folk at Environmetrics say that the Australian Museum, National Gallery of Australia and the National Library and Australian Museum use a standard core structure for exhibition evaluation surveys. Would it be possible to get a copy?

Hi Marian. Several years ago the Evaluation and Visitor Research Special Interest Group of Museums Australia (phew – there's a mouthful!) undertook a study to look at standardising our questions, mostly in the areas of demographics. You can find the reports on the EVRSIG website. Regarding exhibition evaluation, there is an information sheet on my website about exhibition evaluation (scroll down to the Methods section. The recent post I wrote about Beginning Audience Research may also help.

Feel free to share your experiences with us, especially as TMAG is going into a redevelopment phase as I understand it?